DEBUSSY: Images, Books I-II; Children’s Corner; Suite bergamasque; L’Isle joyeuse – Seong-Jin Cho, piano – DGG

Seong-Jin Cho’s Debussy recital for DGG confirms his place in the Debussy tradition set by Gieseking and Michelangeli.

DEBUSSY: Images, Books I-II; Children’s Corner; Suite bergamasque; L’Isle joyeuse – Seong-Jin Cho, piano – DGG 479 8308, 72:47 (11/17/17)  [Distr. by Universal] *****:

South Korean pianist Seong-Jin Cho (b. 1994) recently appeared for the Steinway Society in the Bay Area, a concert which I attended, so I can well attest to his predilection for the music of Claude Debussy, a product of Cho’s studies at the Paris Conservatory with Michel Beroff. Debussy’s fascination with light has often borne comparison with the paintings of his admired J.M.W. Turner, the master of gradations of visual hues.  So, too, the first set of Images (1905) declares its independence from traditional diatonic harmony and embraces modal and whole-tone scales and sonorities of the East, particularly of the gamelan orchestra of Bali and Indonesia. Debussy relishes the blurring of phrase lengths, and he often eschews resolved chords based on tonal harmony. Cho emphasizes the perfect fifth in the bass chords of Reflets dans l’eau, set in D-flat Major, the opening of which suggests a disturbance in standing water whose ripple effects we follow as they undulate and cast sunlight in various directions. The three key notes: A-flat, F, E-flat assume a kind of chime effect, not far removed from the tolling Debussy achieves in his great prelude “The Sunken Cathedral.” Cho urges gentle, bright tones from his selected Steinway instrument, so that pianissimo chords, too, elicit a range of color.

Cho enters the Hommage a Rameau at a noble, sarabande pace, clarion, staid, intimate. The colors Cho projects simmer in a vague pentatonic sensibility, Eastern, but whose rhythmic pulse has become almost static. Eventually, the martial atmosphere becomes more declamatory, yet the mood of pensive reverence for the composer of Les Fetes de Polymnie—Debussy had been editing the opera at the time—never wavers, given that Polyhymnia serves as the Muse of Epic Poetry.  Cho gently, but firmly, urges the relentless sixteenth triplets of Mouvement with a fervor that gathers fanfare motifs, which seem a celebration of perpetual motion for its own sake. The percussion remains soft, reverberant in a haze that quite defines the Debussy style.

Book II of Images (1907), similar to the structure of Book I, opens with two slow movements. For the first piece, Cloches a travers les feuilles, Debussy reverses musical evolution, beginning in modal harmony in whole tones, and then reverting to bells heard in the diatonic scale. The second piece, Et la lune descend sur le temple qui fut, projects a mystical still-life, a hymn that traces a progressive melodic line. For the third piece, Poissons d’or, Debussy found inspiration in a Japanese lacquer of two fighting fish, whose quick and deft movements and thrashing in water become a virtuoso etude for the intended recipient, Spanish piano virtuoso Ricardo Vines. Cho invokes the bells of the village of Rahon with pearly grace, more droplets than bell tolls. We might think Cho’s art a distillation of the styles of both Gieseking and Michelangeli. Both the village of Rahon and the dedication of the next piece, “The Moon Descends upon the Temple that Was,” pay respects to Louis Laloy, a sinologist who served as Debussy’s first biographer. If gossamer cascades of bells ring through the first piece, the opening chord of the ruined temple signifies, as from Baudelaire, a stored, non-cadential image of detachment, leading to a world of pagodas draped in Cho’s especial evocation of stillness.  Connoisseurs of the Debussy oeuvre will note the “well” motif in his opera Pelleas et Melisande now absorbed into the tissue of his Poissons d’or, the harmonic chemistry complementing the nervous passions just beneath the glittery surface.

Debussy’s 1908 Children’s Corner, the suite of six pieces, originally meant to celebrate Debussy’s daughter Claude-Emma, but the sensibility nods to Schumann’s Kinderszenen, childhood memories now appreciated in the light of experience. Flowing, muted arpeggios from Cho mark the opening Doctor Gradus ad Panassum, Debussy’s concentrated equivalent of much of Bach’s WTC by way of Clementi. The mock-heavy tread of Jimbo’s Lullaby serenades a toy elephant named after the famous pachyderm of P.T. Barnum.  Debussy’s creature may well be the Indian species, given the pentatonic nature of his dance. That same penchant for the Orient permeates Serenade for the Doll, a porcelain princess ready to be carted by a rhythmic rickshaw. The Snow is Dancing might remind us of that wintry crystal held by Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s classic film, reminiscing his whole life’s history in the word “Rosebud.” As a kind of etude, this piece rivals Liszt’s Leggierezza for diaphanous transparency. The Little Shepherd reminds us of how much plainchant the Debussy style imbibes. The piece plays as parlando study, much as his piano prelude The Girl with the Flaxen Hair. The famous, jazzy Golliwog’s Cakewalk capitalizes on images created by Florence K. Upton of the black-faced doll who appears in the course of John Huston’s biography of Lautrec, Moulin Rouge. In the midst of syncopes, Wagner’s Tristan appears, perhaps a romantic conceit of which the new century was no longer capable.

The Suite bergamasque seems to have evolved between 1890 and 1905, and it looks both backward to an antique style while looking forward to the “impressionistic” harmony that Debussy refined after his own discoveries in Ravel.  Cho performs the opening Prelude as a flowing improvisation, a cascade of liquid figures and declamations, infiltrated by a heightened pearly play. The Menuet may derive from Haydn, but the harmonies belong to Debussy, and they often hint at the East. Cho imbues the dance with a palpable voluptuousness. Very slow, Cho’s performance of Clair de lune wants to sustain the moonlight for a long evening of amorous contemplation, the Andante marking’s asking lovers to view the moon through the wonder of trees. Cho’s hands must perform separate function in the Passepied, with the left hand staccato throughout while the right builds a melody that sways and lilts with nostalgia.

Debussy’s L’Isle joyeuse perhaps serves the same virtuoso function that Balakirev’s Islamey does for his oeuvre.  The original inspiration might derive from a Watteau painting The Embarkation for Cythera, the legendary Island of Joy. Debussy selects the Lydian form of the A Major scale to exploit a six-note theme, producing a heightened rusticity in the progress of the piece, with its eddies and swirls of color. The natural A Major scale defines the secondary melody, which rises in volume and power over more liquid runs and cascading impulses and trills. Debussy introduces increasing major thirds and whole tones to augment the effect of a magical world, as filled with turmoil as sensual bliss. We might think of his Nocturne “Fetes” in the page of martial ferocity that erupts in multifarious, contrapuntal colors. The paroxysm of earthly joy lie in those final tremolos, rendered with vibrant gusto by a true acolyte of the Debussy style.

—Gary Lemco

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